Fairfax fared okay in General Assembly, officials say — except on transportation

March 14, 2011

Every time the Virginia General Assembly has met in the past few years, Fairfax County officials brace themselves for the worst. They expect that Richmond will aggregate unto itself more powers while reducing the county’s prerogratives to manage local affairs. They expect lawmakers from the more rural, conservative and needy parts of the state will gang up on Virginia’s most populous, most liberal region, expecting it to pay ever more and receive ever less.

This year was no different, except that county officials said they felt that most of the bills that would have tampered with local authority were killed. And cuts to state aid for Fairfax County, though serious, were not a s bad as feared.

On Tuesday, members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors formally assessed the General Assembly’s recent session with a 94-page staff report whose overall theme is that things could have been worse.

County officials had pushed for only a handful of measures, including a law backed by Fairfax County’s police chief to strengthen law enforcement’s hand in dealing with crimes against the elderly. But the measure, sponsored by Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax) and Sen. Mark D. Herring (D-Loudoun), died.in committee.

In a session marked by election-year maneuvering and tea party-driven debates on the size of government, Fairfax County lobbyists were working to kill others. But, of course, some unwanted bills got through.

County officials lobbied against a measure that would begin the process of amending the state constitution to prevent the use of eminent domain for the purposes of economic development. County officials felt the measure went too far.

Earlier this week, four Fairfax County delegates also wrote to Mc­Don­nell asking him to veto a bill that would require elementary and middle schools to devote 150 minutes to physical education a week, not including recess. The lawmakers say the bill is an unfunded mandate that will cost at least $18 million and money and reduce valuable classroom time.

But most of all, the county worked to make sure that Northern Virginia taxpayers see some of the money that they send to Richmond.

Since fiscal 2009, the commonwealth has reduced funding to local jurisdictions by $1 billion. This year, the governor’s proposed revisions to Virginia’s two-year, $78 billion spending plan would have cut $12.8 million to Fairfax County, while the Republican-led House of Delegates’ budget writers would have whacked $16.2 million, and the Democratic-led Senate proposed reducing funding to Fairfax by only $8.3 million. The compromise figure from the Senate and House budget conference was a $9.2 million cut.

“In some ways we dodged a bullet. But in some ways it still cost us$ 9.2 million to go to Richmond this year,” Supervisor Jeffrey C. McKay (D-Lee) said at Tuesday’s regular meeting.Virginia revenues coming back to Fairfax County have declined by a total of $34.2 million since fiscal 2009, according to county staff.

But the General Assembly also restored $12.4 million of the $18.7 million that had been cut in funding last year for sheriffs offices and police departments around the state.

Lawmakers agreed to restore some K12 funding that had been cut last year, sending $491.1 million to Fairfax in the adopted budget revisions compared with $470.8 million in the budget last year. As county lobbyists noted, however, the increase is largely the result of changes in a complex funding formula known as the Local Composite Index (LCI) that gauges a jurisdiction’s ability to pay for its schools. In recent years, the county’s LCI has decreased because of the soft real estate market and rising school enrollments. But lawmakers did agree to restore about $76 million in spending statewide. Lawmakers also agreed to increase enrollment at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology by 50 slots to 1,650.

The General Assembly also agreed to add 275 so-called Medicaid “waivers” that allow people with disabilities to receive care at home or in community-based settings rather than large institutions. And additional 100 were created for people with intellectual disabilities who will be moving from the state’s five major institutions, such as the Northern Virginia Training Center on Braddock Road. The revised spending plan also funds 150 waivers for people with developmental disabilities.

Probably the biggest letdown, McKay said, that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s $3 billion transportation package delivers very little for Fairfax County.

“I was disappointed,” McKay said in an interview before the meeting. “This is a long way from a fair deal in Fairfax County.”

McKay said that of the 900 projects listed in the governor’s transportation package, only about 6.65 percent are in Fairfax County, and some are already under way. Yet, heavily congested Route 1 is nowhere on the list, he said. Only about 22 percent of its funds are directed to Northern Virginia, McKay said. He expressed frustration that the perhaps best comprehensive approach to solving the region’s transportation woes was barely given a hearing — a bill put forward by Del. Vivian Watts that would have imposed a percentage-based fuels tax and allowed Northern Virginia to impose certain taxes to fund projects in the region.

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